Robert Jackson returns to help tell the story of Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, a black response to Birth of a Nation.
BRIAN: Of course history didn’t disappear from the silver screen, far from it. So today on the show, we’re asking what makes history such a popular canvas for American filmmakers. We’ve got the story of a US film that set out to sanitize people’s understanding of Soviet history. We’ll look at how two recent films attempt to deal with American slavery. And we’ll find out why there are hardly any films about the American Revolution and why the ones that do exist are so awful.
ED: But first, we’re going to return to the early-20th century. A moment ago we were talking about The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 blockbuster that retold reconstruction as a story of reconciliation between the white North and the white South. Thinking about that film got us wondering, what would the same history have looked like in the hands of a black director?
PETER: Handily enough, there is actually a movie that helps us answer that question. Five years after The Birth of a Nation took the country by storm, another silent film called Within our Gates turned Griffith’s reading of history inside out.
ED: The film was made by Oscar Micheaux, a prolific black director. Like Birth of a Nation, Within our Gates follows a romance that unites North and South and depicts a violent unrest of reconstruction. The difference is, in the Micheaux film, the hopeful lovers are black and the violent criminals are white.
PETER: To understand the differences between these two interpretations of history, we asked Robert Jackson to walk us through two parallel scenes of lynching in the films. Let’s take The Birth of a Nation first. In that story, the victim of the lynching is a young black soldier, Gus, who’s come to town as part of the federal government’s occupation of the defeated South.
ROBERT JACKSON: And he sets his sights on this young girl, who is the daughter of a prominent white family, and essentially asks her if she will consider marrying him, which she takes as the most horrifying possible idea that has ever been presented. So the dramatic sequence that follows includes a kind of chase sequence. And Gus finally chases this young girl to the top of a rocky cliff where she flings herself off rather than being captured by him and, presumably, rather than being raped by this guy. So that precipitates then this enormous event of violence in which Gus is ritualistically lynched by the emerging force of the Ku Klux Klan, an event that’s presented in pretty graphic detail.
ED: In this so-called history, the problem is black men’s sexual aggression toward white women. The solution is community justice administered by the heroic Klan. And as twisted as that sounds today, in 1915 this attitude was a pretty mainstream view among white Americans both North and South. And in fact, Birth of a Nation gave rise to the modern Ku Klux Klan, which emerged across the entire United States in the 1920s.
PETER: OK, so let’s turn to Within our Gates, which takes a similar event and constructs a totally different narrative. Here too we have a narrowly averted rape and a lynching. But this time the story is told us a flashback, narrated by a black woman rather than from Griffith’s omniscient perspective.
And here the sexual aggressor is a white man and the victim is a black schoolteacher named Sylvia. The white man is never punished. Instead, it’s Sylvia’s innocent parents who are lynched for a separate crime, which they did not commit.
ROBERT JACKSON: And Micheaux is very clear to cut from the scenes of lynching that are presented in horrifying detail to the sort of root cause of the problem in race relations. And that is never over-reaching black sexuality, as it was in Birth of a Nation, but instead the kind of sense of ownership that white people continued to feel for African Americans, and specifically as attempted rape by a powerful white man of a young black woman who is defending herself as heroically as she possibly can. So in this case, lynching is revealed to be not a tool for bringing civilization into being, but instead something that tears apart civilization.
ED: The key to making this argument is the way Micheaux cuts between scenes of the lynching and Sylvia’s fight against her would-be rapist. Look, he’s saying, the problem is not that black men are attacking white women. The problem is that white people are attacking black people, both men and women. Ironically, that technique of cutting between simultaneous events was popularized by none other than D. W. Griffith.
ROBERT JACKSON: But Micheaux turns that process into something entirely different, in which he’s demonstrating his knowledge of Griffith’s style but reinventing it for his own purposes. It really demonstrates, I think, the way that history can be viewed from all sorts of different perspectives with the same grammar, that two filmmakers as different as Griffith and Micheaux could share so much.
PETER: Some people have called Micheaux the black D. W. Griffith. Jackson says that’s not really fair. Micheaux never had anything close to Griffith’s budget. He could only show his films in a handful of segregated theaters. And he had to contend with censors who claimed his stories would stir up racial hatred.
Within our Gates’ impact was nothing like that of Birth of a Nation. But it did suggest a different way of portraying history on film. Micheaux didn’t strive for unbiased omniscience the way Griffith had. And he didn’t claim to be writing history as it had actually happened. Instead, he brought the story down to the ground and captured something of the experience of the people who lived through it.
BRIAN: Helping us tell that story was Robert Jackson from the University of Tulsa. He’s currently writing a book about Southern film in the early 20th century.